Hundreds of British passengers might have avoided being taken hostage by Saddam Hussein in 1990 if a call by a British ambassador regarding Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait had been relayed to British Airways, the Foreign Office has disclosed.
The revelation of the phone call and the decades long cover-up was made on Tuesday under the 20-year disclosure rule, but was known to ministers and diplomats since 1990. The current foreign secretary, Liz Truss, has apologised for the omission.
The files show officials discussed a variety of ways to suppress the existence of the ambassador’s phone call, including holding internal meetings with ministers to discuss whether the UK government would be vulnerable to compensation claims by passengers if its “system failure” was made public.
One note written by the Foreign Office’s Middle East department in August 1991 admits: “We have never mentioned HMA [Her Majesty’s ambassador] Kuwait’s telephone call at c 00.00 on 2 August in public for obvious reasons.” It adds the Foreign Office minister “Douglas Hogg had spoken to the [foreign secretary] Douglas Hurd about this”.
Another written to Hurd’s private secretary, Sir Stephen Wall, said: “We have never made public the sensitive fact that the ambassador rang the duty clerk to say Iraqi troops had crossed the border.”
The suppression of the phone call, made by the ambassador Sir Michael Weston, highlighted in memos distributed across Whitehall, was repeated in parliamentary written and oral statements, as well as in a letter to the shadow transport secretary John Prescott from the prime minister John Major in October 1992.
The extensive files, covering all aspects of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, contain no definitive information on claims made by BA cabin crew, and passengers, that a group of MoD-hired special forces were also on the flight as part of a reconnaissance mission.
It has been alleged that the flight from London to Kuala Lumpur, with a stopover in Kuwait, on the night of 1 August was delayed in London for two hours to allow a small group of military figures to board the plane. The men, allegedly hired by the Ministry of Defence, were being sent to Kuwait to act as spotters ahead of an Iraqi invasion.
In a written statement, Truss referred to special forces by repeating a complex formula given to the then defence minister Geoff Hoon in 2007 that: “The government at the time did not seek to exploit the flight in any way by any means whatsoever.”
In the key disclosure, the files reveal the UK ambassador to Kuwait rang the Foreign Office duty clerk around midnight on 1 August 1990 to warn that some kind of Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was under way. The full scale of the invasion was unclear at that point, but his warning was then relayed across Whitehall including to Downing Street, the Foreign Office and the intelligence services.
But this message was not passed on to British Airways. At the time the BA flight was in the air on the way for a stopover in Kuwait city airport.
The flight landed just 73 minutes after the envoy’s warning call to Whitehall and hundreds of British passengers were soon after captured by Iraqi forces and held hostage for up to five months.
In one letter sent by Foreign Office minister Mark Lennox Boyd, dated July 1991, he wrote that at the time the flight landed “the Foreign Office, our ambassador in Kuwait and British Airways were unaware that Iraq was invading Kuwait”. The Foreign Office civil servants admit the letter was inaccurate.
In her written answer Truss extends her deepest sympathy to those that were captured and held hostage. But in a move to head off any fresh compensation claims, she says “responsibility for the passengers being taken hostage lies solely with the Iraqi government at the time”.
Barry Manners, a passenger on the flight, said he was disappointed the government had not used the opportunity to acknowledge the “irrefutable” evidence that the flight was used for an intelligence mission.
“This was a deliberate act by the British government to use a civilian airliner as a military transport into what turned out to be a live-fire war zone,” he said.